NRL Rd 2 - Knights v Wests Tigers
NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 20: Jackson Hastings of the Wests Tigers is tackled during the round two NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Wests Tigers at McDonald Jones Stadium, on March 20, 2022, in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The Penrith Panthers have kicked well clear of their opposition on the NRL table, sitting ahead of the North Queensland Cowboys and Melbourne Storm by six and eight points respectively after the final bye round.

With 15 wins from 16 games, Ivan Cleary’s side are simply repeating the dose they dished out last season, with win after win.

At the other end of the table, it’s a tale of woe for the sides down the bottom, with the New Zealand Warriors, Canterbury Bulldogs, Wests Tigers and Gold Coast Titans currently occupying the final spots on the competition table, and watching any hopes of playing finals football get further and further away with each passing week.

But, if we were to combine the best possible players into a team from the bottom four, could they potentially hope to overthrow the Penrith juggernaut, or are the Panthers just so far ahead that even a combined team would be no match for them?

Here is the team that the bottom-four would be able to run out with.


Candidates: Reece Walsh (New Zealand Warriors), Jake Averillo, Matt Dufty (both Canterbury Bulldogs), Daine Laurie (Wests Tigers), AJ Brimson, Jayden Campbell (both Gold Coast Titans).

The fullback slot really only has one strong option to run out. AJ Brimson would have held this jumper 12 months ago on the back of an Origin debut in the 2020 series, which was played after the season had completed, but is no longer in that position.

He is now playing at five-eighth, and has struggled in doing so.

Jayden Campbell has shown positive signs, but is nowhere near the level that Reece Walsh provides.

Jake Averillo is also only a few games into his fullback career, and could well turn into a strong long-term option for the Bulldogs, while Matt Dufty has been dropped and will leave the NRL at the end of the year if reports are to be believed.

Daine Laurie is also super talented, but doesn’t hold a candle to Walsh who could go to another level next year with his move back to the Brisbane Broncos.

Verdict: Reece Walsh

NRL Rd 24 - Warriors v Raiders


Candidates: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak (New Zealand Warriors), Josh Addo-Carr, Jacob Kiraz (both Canterbury Bulldogs), David Nofoaluma (Wests Tigers), Corey Thompson, Greg Marzhew, Phillip Sami (all Gold Coast Titans).

The first player in this side picks himself, with Josh Addo-Carr dumped from the Origin team this year, but not letting anyone down after his high-profile move from the Melbourne Storm to the Cantebury Bulldogs during the off-season.

The other spot is far less obvious. Greg Marzhew and Phillip Sami both bring incredible amounts of power and skill, while Corey Thompson, David Nofoaluma and Corey Thompson all bring with them valuable experience.

Nofoaluma might struggle at times on the defensive end of the park, but in a battling Tigers’ team, he continues to find the tryline and wins the spot on the back of it.

Verdict: Josh Addo-Carr and David Nofoaluma


Candidates: Euan Aitken, Adam Pompey, Marcelo Montoya (all New Zealand Warriors), Matt Burton, Aaron Schoupp, Jake Averillo (all Canterbury Bulldogs), Brent Naden, James Roberts (both Wests Tigers), Brian Kelly, Patrick Herbert (both Gold Coast Titans).

Centre is probably the weakest spot in the team, with none of the regular starters having their stats jump off the page.

If you were to pick out and out centres, then the selections would likely come in the form of Brian Kelly and Aaron Schoupp, but with an abundance of options in the halves and second row, it feels like this side can - and should - pick better all-round players.

Matt Burton is the reigning Dally M centre of the year and just played two games - one of them excellently - in the State of Origin arena for the New South Wales Blues in the position.

Euan Aitken is also a former centre, but is likely to line back up there for the Dolphins next year, so he and Burton win these spots on account of the poor options otherwise.

Verdict: Euan Aitken and Matt Burton


Candidates: Shaun Johnson (New Zealand Warriors), Matt Burton (Canterbury Bulldogs), Adam Doueihi (Wests Tigers), AJ Brimson (Gold Coast Titans).

With Burton already being picked in the centres, the selection of who will wear the number six jumper becomes less than straightforward.

If you were picking players based on what they could deliver at the absolute peak of their careers, then Shaun Johnson would be a shoe-in.

Unfortunately for the Kiwi, that isn’t the case and consistency is what will beat the Panthers.

That rules AJ Brimson out given his hot and cold form in the number six jersey for the Titans, and leaves Adam Doueihi, who has recently returned from an ACL injury, to wear the jumper.

Verdict: Adam Doueihi


Candidates: Chanel Harris-Tavita (New Zealand Warriors), Kyle Flanagan (Canterbury Bulldogs), Jackson Hastings, Luke Brooks (both Wests Tigers), Toby Sexton (Gold Coast Titans).

As odd as it is to say both halves will be picked from the side sitting plastered to the bottom of the table, that is exactly the way things have worked out given the need to play Burton in the centres.

None of Chanel Harris-Tavita, Kyle Flanagan or Toby Sexton have been particularly impressive this year.

Harris-Tavita is probably the closest, but still doesn’t have a candle on Jackson Hastings, who is leaps and bounds ahead of teammate Luke Brooks, who has played a mix of halfback and five-eighth this season.

Verdict: Jackson Hastings


Candidates: Addin Fonua-Blake, Bunty Afoa (both New Zealand Warriors), Paul Vaughan, Luke Thompson (both Canterbury Bulldogs), Alex Twal, James Tamou, Stefano Utoikamanu (all Wests Tigers), Isaac Liu, Moeaki Fotuaika, Jarrod Wallace (all Gold Coast Titans).

Addin Fonua-Blake is the first player picked in this team. An absolute workhorse for the New Zealand Warriors, he simply never slows down and despite some injury worries, has had an excellent season in trying to drag his team out of the bottom four.

The second spot is a far tougher selection.

Moeaki Fotuaika gets it. With Origin experience and an ability to play huge minutes without dropping his production, he is one of the club’s most important players.

Paul Vaughan has been consistent this year and alongside Alex Twal, is the next player considered.

Verdict: Moeaki Fotuaika and Addin Fonua-Blake


Candidates: Wayde Egan (New Zealand Warriors), Jeremy Marshall-King (Canterbury Bulldogs), Jacob Liddle, Jake Simpkin (both Wests Tigers), Erin Clark (Gold Coast Titans).

The hooking options don’t inspire great confidence. Jake Simpkin is a player of the future, but hasn’t quite broken through to hit the peak of his abilities this season.

Erin Clark has been poor at times, while Jacob Liddle hasn’t been much better in between dealing with injuries.

That leaves it as a two-horse race, and while Jeremy Marshall-King has shown some skill in the last few weeks, it’s Wayde Egan who clearly is the winner of the number nine jumper.

Verdict: Wayde Egan

NRL Rd 18 - Warriors v Panthers

Second row

Candidates: Josh Curran, Eliesa Katoa, Jack Murchie (all New Zealand Warriors), Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Tevita Pangai Junior (both Canterbury Bulldogs), Kelma Tuilagi, Luke Garner (both Wests Tigers), Beau Fermor, David Fifita, Kevin Proctor (all Gold Coast Titans)

There are some strong candidates for the second row, with five clear front runners in Curran, Faitala-Mariner, Pangai Junior, Fermor and Fifita, while Tevita Pangai Junior could also bring plenty of X-Factor.

The problem is, Fifita brings better X-Factor and you couldn’t hope to win with both of the explosive players on the same team against a club like Penrith, so Fifita is in and Pangai Junior misses out.

Josh Curran wins the race for the other spot. Ordinarily, it may have gone to Faitala-Mariner, but he is still in the early stages of returning from injury, while Fermor will be included in the team, but is just ever so slightly behind Curran who has been an enormous loss for the Warriors and was in the running for a Blues’ spot before his injury.

Verdict: Josh Curran and David Fifita


Candidates: Tohu Harris (New Zealand Warriors), Josh Jackson (Canterbury Bulldogs), Joe Ofahengaue (Wests Tigers), Tino Fa'asuamaleaui (Gold Coast Titans)

All four locks listed as candidates for the team bring plenty of their own attributes to the team.

Jackson is probably at the bottom of the pile despite being one of the game’s best tacklers, while the other three deserve to make the team, particularly given their abilities as combo forwards.

Ofahengauge can play prop and lock, Harris prop, lock and second row, and Fa'asuamaleaui prop and lock, and on the edge as he did in junior football.

The only question is who starts, and it has to go to the Titans’ skipper who has also just capped a phenomenal Origin series for the Maroons.

Verdict: Tino Fa'asuamaleaui

Interchange bench

As mentioned, both Ofahengaue and Harris are included with their form and ability to play all across the forward pack.

The specialist second rower goes to Beau Fermor, who was exceptionally unlucky to miss out on a starting spot after being included in Billy Slater’s wider squad for Game 2 of the Origin series.

On the utility front, it comes down to who has the ability to play more positions, and in this instance, it’s Brimson despite his - and his club’s - very average form so far this season.

Verdict: AJ Brimson, Joe Ofahengaue, Beau Fermor and Tohu Harris

The team

1 Reece Walsh
2 Josh Addo-Carr
3 Matt Burton
4 Euan Aitken
5 David Nofoaluma
6 Adam Doueihi
7 Jackson Hastings
8 Moeaki Fotuaika
9 Wayde Egan
10 Addin Fonua-Blake
11 Josh Curran
12 David Fifita
13 Tino Fa'asuamaleaui
14 AJ Brimson
15 Joe Ofahengaue
16 Beau Fermor
17 Tohu Harris

And so the real question - could they hang with the Panthers?

In short, probably not, because just about no one can. The Panthers are the ladder leaders by the length of the straight and don’t appear to be showing any signs of slowing down.

Still, plenty of X-Factor backed up by a superior bench rotation could give them plenty in this side, although the edge defence and points coming out of halves’ creativity is susceptible at best.

Penrith by 6.